WASHINGTON — As head of analysis for all U.S. spy agencies, Thomas Fingar was making final edits last summer on a long-awaited intelligence report on Iran.
The draft concluded that Tehran was still pursuing a nuclear bomb, a finding that echoed previous assessments and would have bolstered Bush administration hawks. Then, just weeks before the report was to be delivered to the White House, new intelligence surfaced indicating that Tehran's nuclear weapons work had stopped.
Fingar was acutely aware of the stakes. Five years earlier, grave errors helped start a war in Iraq that most Americans now regret. "This was a WMD issue in the country adjacent to Iraq," Fingar said of the Iran intelligence. "We wanted to get this right."
But Fingar would learn that getting it right did not mean he could avert the ongoing conflict between politics and intelligence in the nation's capital, and his Iran report only underscored the limitations of urgent efforts to reform the U.S. spy system.
In several interviews, Fingar offered new insight into the last-minute reversal of the Iran intelligence estimate, and the controversy that has continued to reverberate.
The report, reflecting the new intelligence, kicked the legs out from under the administration's hard-line Iran policy and stunned the diplomatic world, touching off a political maelstrom that has barely abated after five months.
For more than three years, Fingar had pushed through sweeping changes: ramping up training, adapting tools from the Internet and instituting more rigorous review for major reports. Yet the improvements in tradecraft failed to protect the Iran analysts from criticism or to preclude charges that they had political motives.
And were it not for the new intelligence that surfaced last summer, Fingar acknowledged, a key piece of the Iran report would have been wrong.
And he was forced to defend a report that was intended as a symbol of reform.
"We didn't have the dismissal of dissenting views. We didn't have a 'Curveball,' " Fingar said, referring to the discredited source behind much of the prewar intelligence on Iraq. "The image that this was somehow sloppy work in some respects has a splash effect that hits a lot more than just the analysts who worked on it. It's [as if] the whole damn community is still incompetent."
As deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, Fingar's job is to make sure that after Iraq, the teams of experts searching for answers in fragments of intelligence never again get it so wrong.
A serious manner
Fingar, 62, has blue eyes, a deep voice and a serious mien. He grew up on Long Island, where his family operated a market and gas station. He said he is the only surviving member of his youth baseball team -- the others were killed by cars, drugs or Vietnam.
Fingar served as a German linguist in the Army, and was a professor of political science at Stanford University before being lured away in the mid-1980s to serve as a China expert at the State Department.
"What I liked in him was his analytical style," said Richard Clarke, who was one of Fingar's first bosses before becoming a counter-terrorism advisor to Presidents Clinton and Bush. "He was more open, honest and user-friendly than the intentionally obtuse analysts we sometimes get."
Fingar rose to become head of analysis at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Known as INR, the bureau is tiny compared to the CIA, and has a reputation for analytic independence if not obstinacy.
INR was almost alone in voicing any skepticism of the prewar claims that Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons. As a result, the bureau had new clout when the intelligence community came in for sweeping reform.
Fingar was picked to fix the system's shattered credibility. He went from overseeing a few hundred analysts at the State Department to head of nearly 20,000 analysts across more than a dozen spy agencies.
Some of Fingar's first moves were scripted in the legislation that created his job. The law called for basic standards, so analysts now wear cards around their necks reminding them to remain "independent of political considerations."
But others were improvised. Fingar hired a former cryptographer at the National Security Agency, Michael Wertheimer, to help brainstorm ideas; and a former academic, Richard Immerman, as an ombudsman and to enforce quality control.
Fingar's team assembled a directory of analysts, the first time that had ever been done. They launched classified versions of the Wikipedia and MySpace websites, so analysts from different agencies could collaborate online.
Nearly half the nation's analysts have joined the government since 2001. To speed their development, Fingar required new hires to take a six-week course called Analysis 101.
During a recent class in northern Virginia, students from a dozen agencies formed teams to work on a war scenario. It was their first day of class, but many seemed to have arrived having absorbed the lessons of Iraq.